Rohit Sharma what does the future hold?

In September 2009, batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar was just days away from celebrating his twenty years in international cricket. While the whole country celebrated that milestone like a festival, his kit underwent a significant change, one which went unnoticed. The long standing MRF sticker on the top of his blade had been replaced by an Adidas one, replete with a new logo representing the master himself. It was a sort of an era in the cricket-brand marketing world coming to end, as the Chennai-based tyre manufacturers have been associated with him for more than a decade.

It didn't make a whole lot of difference to Sachin's bank account presumably, or his willow as he struck a brilliant 170 against Australia at Hyderabad with his newly fashioned blades. On the sidelines though, it posed a problem for MRF as they couldn't simply retreat from the biggest sporting draw in the country besides their auto-racing interests. Across the world they had three big cricketing talents in Sachin, West Indian Brian Lara and Australian Steve Waugh brandishing their signage on their bats. It was enough advertisement any company could dream of in a lifetime. But when the two legendary foreigners retired and the great Indian batsman changed his preferences, what players would now carry on the tags?

Ricky Ponting may be a far bigger batting great than Waugh but he is clearly not as gritty a captain. West Indian cricket is in ruins and there cannot be found another Lara until the world stops playing this game. But in India, ever since 2007, people had started talking about the young cricketer who could one day take Sachin Tendulkar's place in the Indian eleven. That is a big sentence even to write or surmise, so think of those who might have said it on air to world audiences. They would have needed ample proof when they uttered those words and as luck would have it, they got that proof. A young Indian player made his debut for India, in 2007. Later in the T20 World Cup that year, his half century against South Africa set up the game for his country and gave hope to a billion fans that all won't be  lost when Sachin finally leaves.

More than that it also gave MRF their new face, the one who was considered the successor, and so it wasn't really any surprise when later in the 2009-10 season, Rohit strode out to the middle with a bat adorned with their name. Along with the now infamous blimps during the 2010 IPL, this was indeed their new marketing strategy when it came to cricket. But as with Sachin, so with his deemed replacement, the sticker on the bats don't matter. What matters is how many runs flow from those willows, and that is the question that today is being asked of this young man.

Hailing from Mumbai meant that Rohit would naturally be drawn to cricket as all young kids in that city are at some point of their lives. He is not a M a h a r a s h t r i a n though, born to parents hailing from Andhra Pradesh. But again, cricket is the language that he chose to follow and has made rapid strides from a very early age. He excelled in the Giles and Harris Shield school cricket tournaments, after which he was selected for the Mumbai Under-17 team. He was later chosen for India's Under-17 and Under-19 teams, and made his mark at the 2006 U-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, finishing among the top rungetters in the tournament. He was enrolled as a student at Rizvi College, Mumbai, before he was called up to the national side. All of this while he was just turning twenty!

The thing that inspires confidence in him is his ability to play all shots in the book, combined with supple wrists and the knack of finding gaps, even when trying to make room on the leg side for his slog shots. It was a rousing start to his international career: eye catching performances in Sri Lanka for the Under-19 team, playing in England, winning the T20 World Cup and later that season, the CB Series in Australia where he scored 66 in the first final to help his side through. In a span of fifteen months, his star was at an all time high, when the Indian Premier League happened.

Ever since its inception there have been two ways to look at the IPL. To a lot of people it is high entertainment value for their money as well as allows a better growth curve for the plethora of domestic cricketers in this country. It also allows them to mix with foreign players and earn valuable experience which can otherwise only be acquired by playing international cricket. And how many cricketers are able to cross over to that threshold is any body's guess? But then there are those who believe that anything done in extreme is too bad for health, of players and of general cricket in this country. The IPL may have started as a boon but slowly it is becoming the bane of the younger  generation's cricket. Rohit Sharma is one of those embroiled in this tug of war between purists/critics and the watching/paying public. The need of the hour is a balance which is nowhere in sight.

Rohit's journey in cricket so far is perfectly described pre-IPL 2008 and since then. One has already mentioned the glittering fashion in which he began his international essay. Buoyed by huge success in that winter, young players like Suresh Raina, Ishant Sharma and Rohit, earned lucrative IPL contracts. Before even turning twenty one years old, he was worth 175,000 US dollars to the Deccan Chargers franchise, and since then has repaid that money in no uncertain amount with his performances.

Sample this: he finished the first season of the IPL, 2008, with 404 runs to his name at an average of 36.72. During that in-form run, he was also the leading rungetter in the tournament, the beholder of the Orange Cap for a considerable period of time. In the 2009 season then, in South Africa, he scored 333 runs and took 11 wickets including a hat-trick, helping his side win the coveted crown. What's more, he was also named the Under-23 Player of the Tournament. His string of great T20 performances continued this past season, 2010, as well. He notched up another 404 runs helping his side make the semi-finals again.

In no uncertain terms then, Rohit's career moved into high gear through his IPL performances. It assured him a place in the T20 World Cups of 2009 and 2010 for he had become too valuable a player for the young Indian side by then. His form dictated that, after all he had added a new asset to his arsenal: bowling. When he first burst onto the scene, no one would have thought of throwing the ball to him. Yet, when he took that hat-trick in the IPL, many would have seen in him shades of a young Sachin Tendulkar from the 1993 Hero Cup against South Africa.Anybody who even as much as thought ill of the IPL ought to have been shown this young man's example and probably the cynic would have been convinced of all the good that this Lalit Modi monstrosity has done.

The thing about critics is that their cynicism knows no bounds and for a true one, his beliefs often find some form of real life shape. And that is what happened; from a glorious example of how the youngsters of Indian cricket were benefiting from incessant Twenty20 action, within fifteen months spanning two T20 world tournaments, the bubble was burst. Not only did India fail to reclaim its crown in England last year but were humiliated in West Indies recently, and Rohit was part of the guilty crowd.

It wasn't as if he was the lone man responsible for the two losses. No, instead in the West Indies, he was probably the one batsman who showed any semblance of form, while in England, poor judgment of batting order did no good for his worth to the side. The point however doesn't pertain only to these two tournaments, but what transpired in between. The man who was sent back to domestic cricket after the 2008-09 season to finish his graduation to international cricket and take over the mantle, simply failed in his examination. In the two domestic seasons since, Rohit has been a pale shadow of his highly rated self. His  form for Mumbai purged and he was a character lost. So much so that Virat Kohli, in every way possible his junior and probably a much less talented cricketer, rose above him in the ODI side's pecking order.

He got his place in the squad of fifteen back on the basis of his triple century in the Ranji Trophy last season but it wasn't enough to guarantee him a spot in the starting eleven. The waiting around for his chance to come caught up with him and the lazy  confidence he exuded in his shots turned to laziness in his stature off the field, where many onlookers spotted weight around his waist, prior to the IPL and the T20 World Cup. It did no favor to him when he declared triumphantly that Yuvraj Singh is his idol and that he would blindly follow him.

Today, his talent stands at crossroads. Playing in Zimbabwe, he recently etched out two back-to-back centuries for himself in the ODI tri-series and no one grudges him that success because he needed to be given another shot after the T20 World Cup disappointment, for he has a lot to offer. But here, he must understand and carefully choose the path he wants to tread. Will it be of his idol, Yuvraj, who finds his own career in the doldrums today and might just be consigned to the history books as another great talent lost by Indian cricket? Will he really follow that road? Or will he do what he did in Zimbabwe, and stand up and be counted when the opportunity arises? For it is arising now as India begins to look ahead to the 2011 ODI World Cup, and he needs to change his attitude system a bit!

Maybe he can look upto the one individual whom he might replace one day, if things pan out well. If he does so, they surely will, for Sachin  Tendulkar hasn't done much wrong in his cricket career. And rest assured, he will not let a young, valuable talent go down the drain, not let his beliefs in ability go away but nurture it. For Rohit Sharma, it is a time to set his priorities straight while the Indian masses wait in anticipation.

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